IN 2008, Danica Patrick accomplished two firsts: She became both the first woman to win an IndyCar race and the first race car driver to appear in the men’s magazine FHM. In FHM, Patrick was clothed only in red leather underwear with her legs spread on the hood of a car. The pictures were accompanied by a short interview where Patrick answered questions like, “Is your underwear flame retardant?” and “Are there times of the month when you are a more aggressive or angry driver?”
There is an interesting contrast of Patrick’s cover pictorial and the one of basketball star Candace Parker. Parker is arguably the greatest women’s basketball player in the world. She will dunk on your head. She also spent a good part of last year pregnant. ESPN the Magazine put Parker on their cover in glowing maternal white cradling her belly.
Here is how the article starts: “Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup…. She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin.”
One can only imagine how people would respond if there was an article about Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning that started, “Peyton Manning is handsome. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a medium jock strap he shows off at every turn.”
The ESPN the Magazine article on Parker goes on to bring Danica Patrick into the discussion, noting that,
Patrick is nowhere near the best in her field, but she doesn’t need to be, because she is hot enough to pose for Maxim. While that works for her, Parker wants more…. There is nothing crass or needy about her, nothing vulgar. She comes from a place of quiet confidence—in herself, in life, in God.
The entire Danica Patrick-Candace Parker dynamic can conjure up many emotions like annoyance and anger. It’s also very tired. It’s tired because it shows that women athletes have been in the same box for a century: We are content to be girls first, athletes second. And most critically: We are hetero, hetero, hetero. We are so straight we have pregnant bellies or we dream of being drooled upon by fraternity losers.
The vise for women athletes is always and forever present—it is the same vise of sexism on one side and homophobia on the other. And this vise crushed an 18-year-old South African runner by the name of Caster Semenya.
Caster set a world record in the 800-meter sprint at the 2009 African Junior Championships. She should have gone on to train for the Olympics. Instead, she was on suicide watch. This has everything to do with the twisted way track and field understands gender.
The more Caster won, the more she took seconds off her personal bests, the more her drug tests came back negative, the more her competitors whispered: Her muscles don’t look like a woman’s. Her hips don’t look like a woman’s. Her voice doesn’t sound like a woman’s. She’s too fast! Too good! In the culture of women’s track and field, there could only be one conclusion: If she is this good, she must be “part man.”
The rumors spread, pressure mounted, and international track and field officials then proceeded to subject Caster to “gender testing” which included invasive examinations by a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, and a psychologist. Why a psychologist was needed to help determine her gender is still a mystery.
Then the humiliation: her test results were leaked to the press, claiming to show that she has internal testes and no womb or ovaries. (It should be noted that the actual, official test results have never been made public and were deemed confidential.)
It’s possible that Caster Semenya is one of the millions of people in the world (one of 1,666 births in the U.S. alone) who are classified as intersex. Or she may have AIS, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which affects as many as 5 out of 100,000 births. But whatever Caster Semenya’s biological makeup, it should be a private issue between her and her doctor, and it shouldn’t be something that either prevents her from competing or holds her up for derision. Instead she became a punch line. A story about her saga was accompanied on MSNBC with the Aerosmith song “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”
And there were obvious questions few in the sports media asked. Why should it matter if she is maxing out her every biological advantage? No one asks if basketball star Yao Ming has an unfair advantage because he is seven-foot-five. No one asked at the 2008 Olympics if swimmer Michael Phelps had an unfair advantage because of his mammoth flipper-like feet. If anything, he was praised for being, as one announcer said breathlessly in the Olympic coverage, “built to swim!” Why isn’t Caster Semenya, with her slender hips and powerful muscles being seen as “built to run?” She should be preparing for the Olympics. Instead she is preparing for survival.
The entire Caster story has an eerie echo of a century ago: the story of Mildred “Babe” Didrikson.
Babe Didrikson emerged in the 1920s and was a national sensation. She could hit a ball as far as Babe Ruth. She also could box, strike out major league players, and throw a football fifty yards. A reporter once asked her, “Is there anything at all you don’t play?” She said, “Yeah, dolls.” Yet despite her towering athletic accomplishments, the backlash was lurking. Sportswriters denounced Didrikson as “mannish,” and “not-quite female.” She was someone who could not “compete with other girls in the very ancient and time honored sport of mantrapping,” commented one reporter.
Didrikson then disappeared and returned in the 1950s with her hair long, a ton of makeup, and playing golf, which was perceived of as an appropriate woman’s sport. She also returned married to a mammoth pro wrestler named George Zaharias. Sportswriters loved it: They wrote gleefully, “Along came a great big he-man and the Babe forgot all her man-hating chatter.” One headline read, “Babe is a Lady Now: The World’s Most Amazing Athlete has Learned to Wear Nylons and Cook for Her Huge Husband.”
From Babe Didrikson to Caster Semenya. How far we haven’t come. Why is there so much sexism and homophobia in sports? As long as humans have been able to feed and clothe themselves, they have organized themselves for the purpose of play—though you don’t see organized sports until the end of the nineteenth century. But for most women, organized sports was something they were simply denied, which also meant they were denied access to exercise, camaraderie, and the philosophical empowerment sports can provide where young people learn to “lead in the real world.”
Some wealthy women had access to the country club sports of golf and tennis, but it was no refuge.
Tennis, in particular, was pain not pleasure. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, they were forced to play in corsets. Women started to pass out from suffocation. The corset only left the game when 15-year-old Lottie Dod got a corset exemption because she played in her school uniform and won Wimbledon. She later made the plea to allow “a suitable attire for women’s tennis which does not impede breathing.”
But all women were denied the benefits of exercise, physical fitness, and play, so the early women’s rights activists, the suffragettes, began to demand it. Boys had sports programs from the public schools to the colleges. They believed girls should have it to.
In response, a whole cottage industry of quack science developed explaining how sports would cause women to become infertile, to become “nymphomaniacs,” to do everything short of growing a tail.
One writer in an 1878 edition of the American Christian Review diagrammed the twelve-step downfall of any woman who dared engage in the sinful world of croquet. It is truly a slippery slope.
- Social party.
- Social and play party.
- Croquet party.
- Picnic and croquet party.
- Picnic, croquet and dance.
- Absence from church.
- Immoral conduct.
- Exclusion from the church.
- A runaway match (more croquet)
- Shame and disgrace.
For women athletes—who came both from the middle class and working class—the mere access to sports came to symbolize their very liberation. The age of the whalebone corset started to crack because of struggle and because of an invention, the bicycle. The science community rose up again to stop this scourge. Quack science produced papers proving conclusively that the bicycle could cause infertility by imploding the uterus. In addition to the collapsed uterus, doctors claimed that women were susceptible to what they called the “bicycle face,” a condition where excessive riding of a bicycle would leave you with a permanent scowl consisting of a “protruding jaw, wild staring eyes, and strained expression.”
Indeed, pioneering feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized that the right of physical play was deeply tied to liberation. In a piece for the women’s magazineThe Lily, she wholeheartedly rejected claims of a man’s “physical superiority,” writing, “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy, in romping, swimming, climbing, or playing ball.”
She was arguing against gender segregation in sports. She was arguing that nurture and not nature determine a man’s physical and sporting superiority. It was a gutsy argument. But it was an argument that she and others who were making it lost. Women had narrowly won the right to play, but in separate and unequal facilities.
Indeed, the first generation of women’s gym teachers argued that sports had to be segregated by sex because only under their watchful eyes could women be prevented from “loss of sexual control” and “emotional stimulation.”
The physical education (PE) teachers also said that they would be the guardians against lesbianism being the outgrowth of play—although this was said in careful code. As Susan K. Cahn writes in Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sports, one PE director promised that women’s sports would not create “the loud masculinely dressed man-aping individual but the whole hearted rosy cheeked healthy girl.”
Yet in these early days, every time a woman showed that she could compete, she excelled. In 1924, Sybil Bauer set the world record in the backstroke, beating the men’s record. Then Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel, nearly two hours faster than the men’s record. When Ederle set the record, newspapers said with great trepidation that it was “a battle won for feminism.”
But as sports opened up, the old stereotypes held women back. The Amateur Athletic Union would integrate beauty pageants with the big athletic tourneys. It was common for PE programs, for fear of the lesbian label, to require that PE majors “have or possess the possibilities of an attractive personal appearance.”
This backlash atmosphere was the norm until the country got turned on its head during the Second World War. Men went off to war and women went into the factories. The symbol of this massive social change was the image of Rosie the Riveter. Another symbol of this transformation was the catapulting of women’s professional baseball, the All American Girls Baseball League (AAGBL), and it lasted from 1943–1955, perhaps best known from the movie A League of their Own.
There was much to celebrate in the AAGBL—the fact that women were playing hardball and not softball, the high level of play, and the support it received (at its height the AAGBL drew one million fans in a year).
But the players also had to wear skirts and follow what management called a “femininity principle” that meant makeup, long hair, and a mandatory evening charm school. Any hint of lesbianism meant immediate dismissal. Josephine D’Angelo, for example, was released immediately after getting a bob haircut.
The league was destroyed with a vengeance at the end of the war. After the war, the country set about getting Rosie the Riveter out of the factory and back in the kitchen and making babies. While the old archetype was Rosie the Riveter, now it was June Cleaver. Unless you could do housework and raise kids while wearing pearls, you were something less than a woman.
This was about asserting the ideal that women had to be in the home. It was also accompanied in women’s sports by virulent homophobia. This was the era of McCarthyite raids against gays and lesbians, mass firings from government jobs, attacks on bars. This homophobia invaded the very heart of women’s athletics in the 1950s in a way that was far more explicit than in the past.
Before it was coded. It was fear of the “mannish” athlete. Now it was explicit homophobia. At the national 1956 conference of collegiate women physical educators, the guest speaker, Dr. Josephine Renshaw, did a talk with the benign title of “Activities for Mature Living.” But it was more of a rant: a warning against the “muscular Amazon with unkempt hair, clod hopper shoes, and dowdy clothing who would become disappointed in heterosexual attachments and see women’s sports in a predatory fashion.”
This was the terrain upon which women competed (or didn’t compete) until the late 1960s, when a growing women’s movement made demands for equality in society and in the world of sports. This was chiefly manifested by two events: the passage of Title IX—the 1972 law stipulating that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”—and the emergence of the great Billie Jean King.
The roar of the new movement was demonstrated in utterly dramatic fashion when Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in their “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, called by the London Sunday Times, “The drop shot and volley heard around the world.”
Riggs, a 1939 Wimbledon champion had already swept the court with women’s champion Margaret Court on Mother’s Day in 1973. King, who previously had rejected Riggs’ dare to play, accepted his latest challenge.
“I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn’t win that match,” the twelve-time Grand Slam winner said. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
The “Battle of the Sexes” captured the imagination of the country, not just tennis enthusiasts. On September 20, 1973, in Houston, King was carried out on the Astrodome court like Cleopatra, in a gold throne held aloft by four muscular men dressed as ancient slaves. Riggs was wheeled in on a rickshaw pulled by models in tight outfits who were named “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.”
Their entrances turned out to be the most competitive part of the day as King, then 29, ran Riggs ragged, winning 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. As Neil Amdur wrote in theNew York Times, “Most important perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women.”
The great Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated, “She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise.” He continued, “Moreover, like [Arnold] Palmer, she has made a whole sports boom because of the singular force of her presence.”
King was far more than a symbol, or an athlete. She was an activist and participant in the women’s movement for equal rights, and later came out as a lesbian and activist for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) equality. In the words of tennis great Martina Navratilova, she “embodied the crusader fighting a battle for all of us. She was carrying the flag; it was all right to be a jock.”
King fought for a women’s players union and forged the Women’s Tennis Association. She was elected its first president in 1973. King, who received $15,000 less than Ilie Nastase did for winning the U.S. Open in 1972, called for a strike by women players if the prize money wasn’t equal by the following year. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer an equal winners’ purse for men and women.
It was for her role in the movements of the day that Life magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” She was the only female athlete on the list, and one of only four athletes—Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Babe Ruth were the others—who is strongly associated with social movements.
As for Title IX, today one in three young girls play sports. Twenty-five years ago, that number was one in twenty-seven. That’s important, in part, because young women who play sports are less likely to suffer from osteoporosis, eating disorders, or the darkness of depression. This law has improved the quality of life for tens of millions of women across the country.
But for women, sports remain a place of denigration, not celebration. Swimsuit issues, cheerleaders, and beer-commercial sexism define women in the testosterone-addled sports world. Homophobia is still a major issue. While women athletes like Sheryl Swoops of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) have also come out of the closet, it is still very difficult.
Only when it is challenged openly does homophobia erode. Take the case of Jen Harris. Jen was one of the leading scorers for the Penn State women’s basketball team and a WNBA prospect. But then she was suddenly cut from the team. Jen is a lesbian. Her coach Rene Portland, a two-time coach of the year whose nickname was “mom,” had three rules: no drugs, no drinking, and no lesbians.
Jen refused to take it, suing for discrimination. Rallies were held on campus. Other Penn State players came forward revealing a twenty-seven-year history of psychological abuse, humiliation, and discrimination. It’s partly because of the Rene Portlands that Caster Semenya was on suicide watch last year. It’s because of the Rene Portlands that we need a movement for sexual liberation that sees access to athletics as a right and not a privilege. And it’s because of the Billie Jean Kings that we have a roadmap of what to do and how to fight.
Now what about the boys? I don’t want to shock anybody, but being gay in a men’s locker room is not exactly easy. It’s difficult to imagine a more oppressive atmosphere. Anti-gay slurs can seem as ingrained in pro sports as racism was fifty years ago.
Players routinely get away with blithe homophobic comments. Jeremy Shockey, the part-time Saints tight end, and full-time jackass, called Coach Bill Parcells a “homo” and said he “wouldn’t stand” for a gay teammate. John Smoltz the pitcher—whose two favorite movies (seriously) are The Passion of the Christ andDumb and Dumber, volunteered his views on equal marriage—he wasn’t asked—and said, “What’s next? Marrying animals?”
Players like Mets future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, and Jeff Garcia, have even felt the need to hold press conferences just to tell us that they are not gay.
To be gay is to be weak. To be gay is to be vulnerable. To accept gay teammates is also to accept that all that butt slapping, rough housing, and showering, could have other meanings. So you get common slang like “no homo.” This is said by athletes after compliments as in, “That’s a nice shirt…no homo.”
Then you have the Evangelical Christian organization Athletes in Action, with connections to groups that promote “reparative therapy” for gays and lesbians, which holds sway in many locker rooms.
In today’s sports world, we still have not seen an active player in the big three men’s sports—baseball, basketball, or football—come out of the closet. It’s no wonder why, as players—most of whom come from poor and working-class backgrounds—would risk financial, if not physical, ruin.
This is why the athletes who have come out of the closet have done so after they retired. Esera Tuaolo, Dave Kopay, and Roy Simmons of the NFL; John Amaechi of the NBA; Billy Bean, and the late Glenn Burke in Major League Baseball all took this route.
There is a real material reason why men’s sports can be so homophobic. It’s been built into organized sports in the United States from their very beginning. And to understand where the ideas of homophobia come from, we have to know our history and look at the very foundation of men’s sports in the United States.
After the Civil War, we see a crazy period of industrial development and immigration. The numbers really are staggering. From 1860 to 1900, the population of the U.S. grew from 31 to 75 million. New York grew from 800,000 to 4 million; Chicago from 100,000 to 2 million. Railroads were built that connected each end of the country. This was an era of booms for the new rich— known as the robber barons like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie—and busts for everyone else.
In 1877, as the economy tanked, sewage entered the drinking water in many cities. The New York Times wrote articles where they would write matter-of-factly of “a thousand deaths of infants per week.” This was also the year of the great national railway strike and the first general strike in U.S. history in St. Louis. Put down with bloody force, the strike wave was a sign of things to come—social unrest in this country on a grand scale.
For the bosses, clearly more was needed than rifles and bayonets. They needed ways to ensure order, and to properly socialize their workers. And here we see as a response to social chaos and class struggle—the birth of the idea that sports could be used to promote American values among the poor.
The robber barons invested millions of dollars to make sure sports were an option for young immigrant boys. They funded and launched the Young Men’s Christian Association, the YMCA. By 1880, there were 261 Y gyms scattered across the United States. As one historian wrote, “The Y’s gospel was play was no longer a sin but a way to glory God…and Jesus was a sinewy stud.”
Then they took it a step further as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt underwrote the first Public School Athletic League, a move that put sports in urban schools, thanks to private funds.
But the sports explosion wasn’t just about controlling workers. It was also about making young members of the ruling-class elite fit to rule. A fear gripped the new robber barons that their own pampered, privileged children were completely unprepared to navigate the violent world they created.
Their concern bordered on the hysterical. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in theAtlantic Monthly in the mid-nineteenth century, “I am satisfied that such a set of black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from the loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage.” (I don’t think anyone regrets that “sprang from the loins” has left the language.)
Sports were seen as the answer for these stiff-jointed folks. And a word was actually created for those who didn’t like sports: the sissy. Elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown began initiating intercollegiate football, which came to resemble something out of Braveheart, with students literally dying on the field.
If you take a step back, we can see the roots of the decaying empire of our present day. You have economic elites sending their children to die in Ivy League football games merely because they were terrified that they wouldn’t be tough enough to lead genocide abroad and industrial murder at home. And failure to do so made you a sissy?!
This culture of death was proudly known as muscular Christianity. And its most prominent spokesperson, the prom king of this culture of death was an aristocratic boxer named Theodore Roosevelt.
Railing repeatedly against sissies, he saw tough athletic training as a way to build a new Anglo-Saxon super race. I know this can all seem like macho idiocy. And some of it is. But this is not machismo for machismo’s sake.
Ideas like muscular Christianity were about preparing the United States for empire. This is the period of the U.S. invading the Philippines, Latin America, the Caribbean and the values of sports were deeply tied to ideas about spreading Christianity by force and conquering other lands. Albert Spalding—as in Spalding sporting goods—spoke proudly about baseball as a kind of helping hand for U.S. empire, writing,
Baseball has proudly “followed the flag”…. It has followed the flag to the Hawaiian Islands, and at once supplanted every other form of athletics. It has followed the flag to the Philippines, to Puerto Rico, and to Cuba, and wherever a ship floating the stars and stripes finds anchorage today, somewhere on nearby shore the American national game is in progress.
So you see how sports were used: to both calm radicalism at home and prepare people for war abroad.
The U.S. athlete became the embodiment not only of manliness, but an almost Conan type figure. Conan the Barbarian, played by the now lame duck governor of California said, “Crush your enemies, see them fall before you, and hear the lamentations of women!” And if that sounds like an exaggeration, I have been to football games where they play that scene on the Jumbotron.
And it is for this reason that there is so much homophobia in sports: it’s about selling an image of the U.S. back to ourselves—an image of dominance, military in character. After all, who tossed the coin at the 2009 Super Bowl? It wasn’t John Elway or Joe Montana. It was General David Petraeus.
But there is change on this front as well. And once again, it doesn’t happen automatically but through struggle.
Tom Waddell, a decathlete at the 1968 Olympics, came out of the closet, got political, and started what he called the Gay Olympics in San Francisco in 1982. The idea was that they would be open to everyone, regardless of skill and of course sexual orientation. This was a very daring idea, and it offended all the right people. Waddell and the other organizers were sued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to prevent them from using the word Olympics.
This was the first time the IOC had ever sued for the usage of a word that had been used by organizations like the Special Olympics and the Nebraska Rat Olympics. But Waddell wouldn’t quit. He also crafted a very different vision of what sports could be.
In outlining his mission early in the process, Waddell said,
The Gay Games are not separatist, they are not exclusive, they are not oriented to victory, they are not for commercial gain. They’re intended to bring a global community together in friendship, to elevate consciousness and self-esteem.
And the opening ceremonies in 1982 were led not by David Petraeus, but by Tina Turner.
In 1986, even though the IOC held a lien on Tom Waddell’s house, as part of their lawsuits against the unauthorized use of the word Olympics, the games went on as scheduled. It was triple the size of the 1982 games, with 3,000 athletes attending from eighteen countries to compete in seventeen different sports.
There were three times as many women as men in the 1986 power lifting events. And openly HIV-positive people competed, at a time when the disease was ignored by the Reagan administration and known in great swaths of the country as “the gay plague.” Sean O’Neil, for example, a tennis player from San Francisco, said, “I’m playing for all the other people with AIDS.”
The 1994 Gay Games IV were held in New York City. This time, the event attracted more than 11,000 participants in thirty-one events, making it the largest athletic competition in history. It also led to a political campaign that pushed Clinton’s federal government to allow HIV-positive individuals from outside the United States to enter the country, without special permits, to attend the Games. It was the first time that was ever allowed.
Greg Louganis, four-time Olympic gold medalist in diving who became HIV-positive, came out at the Gay Games.
The Gay Games are very inspiring for those of us who want to see a level playing field, but today, in 2010, there is an even greater reason to be positive, and that starts with the fact that there is a movement. Every movement for civil rights over the last century has seen the struggle for equality reverberate in the often quite conservative arena of sports.
It’s impossible to think of the early days of the civil rights movement without considering Jackie Robinson, the African American player who broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947—or the the 1960s without considering Muhammad Ali.
We cannot consider the women’s rights movement without considering tennis star Billie Jean King. Now as we see a new LGBT movement in front of us, it is also starting to find voice in the world of sports. Baltimore Ravens linebacker and two-time pro bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out for full marriage equality saying, “We will look back in ten, twenty, thirty years and be amazed that gays and lesbians did not have the same rights as everyone else.”
Then Saints linebacker, Scott Fujita, endorsed the October 2009 National Equality March saying of Ayanbadejo’s remarks,
I hope he’s right in his prediction, and I hope even more that it doesn’t take that long. People could look at this issue without blinders on...the blinders imposed by their church, their parents, their friends, or in our case, their coaches and locker rooms. I wish they would realize that it’s not a religion issue. It’s not a government issue. It’s not even a gay/straight issue or a question of your manhood. It’s a human issue. And until more people see that, we’re stuck arguing with people who don’t have an argument.
At the 2010 Super Bowl, Fujita used the opportunity of constant media attention to speak out for LGBT rights and his story was picked up by the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and many other publications.
When football players—the ultimate muscular Christianity sport—speak out, it challenges a very backward and divisive idea about what it means to be a “real man.” And that is something we should celebrate.
For women and men: the vise of homophobia in sports will not loosen unless there is a movement outside the field and in the streets.
It’s also about fighting for a world where sports are about games, fun, and the thrill of teamwork and not about preparing our young for war. It’s about young girls in South Africa having the freedom to run without having to fear who will be examining their gender. And it’s about young boys in the United States who can be out and proud without giving up the right to play. It’s about living in a world where our dignity and humanity are assumed and not something that requires a march.
My favorite sign at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., was “We hold these truths to be pretty frickin’ obvious!” This is absolutely right. But it will take a fight to drag that truth into the light of day.